also bluntly voiced by several Funai employees who tried to discourage my teaching
efforts by stating: “Indians are too stupid to learn mathematics” - a statement I heard
time and again made by government employees, as mentioned in Chapter 1. In
Brazil, like in the United States, failure to learn mathematics is responsible for over
50 percent of schooling dropout rates; that is, students are either expelled from
school or give up studying because they cannot learn mathematics. As a result, half
of the adult population in both countries can't handle arithmetic, and the tendency
in Brazil is to blame students themselves for their lack of abstract reasoning.
Among Brazilian Indigenous Peoples the situation is magnified because different
mathematical philosophies and economic systems are at stake, most notably
gift-exchange and capitalism. Conflicts generally arise when distinct economic
actions come into play that represent conflicting interests, number concepts, and
Figure 5.4. Rafael and Mario Xavante (from left), students at the Ri'tubre school in 1979.
As discussed in Chapter 1, Brazilian Indigenous Peoples, such as the Suyá in
central Brazil and the Yanomami in the Amazon region, are often labeled by the media
as “primitive” because they did not usually count beyond 10. Their “number sense”
is often compared to that of children with little formal education (Bhanoo 2011).
Likewise, the Manduruku people, whose “language has few words for numbers
beyond five except 'few' and 'many'… appear to understand many principles of
geometry as well as American children do, and in some cases almost as well as
American adults” (Bakalar 2006). This is indeed a very narrow and superficial